Kona Village

by Louis Bignami

South Pacific, From Here to Eternity, Hawaii and lumpen cinema efforts such as Blue Hawaii and Gidget Goes Hawaiian  run to sun, sand, surf, palms and bougainvillea. Careful editing empties parking lots, diverts traffic noise, and presents only the most attractive profiles of sprawling resort hotels. Long-time residents claim Hawaii took the wrong path when they allowed high rises to fringe the state's best known landmark, Diamond Head. So where do locals seek "Old Hawaii"? Some brave dirt roads to remote valleys. Many head for Kona Village, perhaps Hawaii's most authentic five star resort - where the site, the service and the staff call up memories of the way Hawaii should have been "way back when." Then, if you can tear yourself away, you can try their bluewater fishing boat, try a charter trip out of the major charter center just 20 minutes away, hunt for heavyweight records, surf and rock fish or tempt reef fish at night.

When my father built the "old" Royal Hawaiian Hotel in downtown Honolulu, Waikiki beach palms waved over sand and coconuts, against the backdrop of Diamond Head and a swamp back in the Ali Wai. When I lived in Hawaii during the 1960s, high rises had skirted Diamond Head and Waikiki Beach ran to tourists. Still, you could escape to other islands and other beaches. On our last four trips and two cruises, we found favorite beaches hemmed in by hotels, and old Hawaiian towns spiffied up for the tourist trade.

Only one thing, the atmosphere at Kona Village, still remains the same. Twenty years ago Army buddies and I boated in to ask directions to a nearby nudist beach. Then, you flew or boated into the palm-roofed Kona Village hales, the scenic Polynesian huts, that line the resort's white and black sand beaches. Now, if you don't miss the modest gatekeeper's shack on the Kona Highway, where Iron Men sweat, you bump down 2 1/2 miles over the lava fields to old Hawaii.

Since my wife and I have been fishing, travel and outdoor writers for over 20 years, we see resorts a bit differently than casual visitors. At most spots it's in for a couple of days to review rooms, public areas, restaurants and activities, and then off to write about something else. After two weeks, and five or six resorts, settings and surroundings start to blur into one all-purpose resort with a big lobby, large, but elbow-rubbing dining room and miles of corridors where guests retreat to their rooms after dinner. The unhappy results of market research do homogenize the tropical experience. Only in wildly impractical spots, like Bora-Bora or if you don't mind French manners, Tahiti, do you find hales on the beach under palm trees.

Kona Village remains the exception. No phones, no room TV, no air conditioning colds, no long halls, no crowded dining rooms or jammed beaches. Instead, you stroll along packed sand paths through the bougainvillea and plumeria, spend an evening watching the sun set over an empty black sand beach, or work up breakfast appetite with a morning swim in a bay so isolated its colorful fish remind you of an undersea preserve. Add two pools -- each with its bar -- five star food and a host of undemanding activities and you might think you understood Kona Village. But this world-class resort is more than buildings and real estate, however charming.

It's a beach boy teaching a classic nerd of a youngster how to hit a baseball one afternoon; then bringing a cousin's bat and ball and working with the boy for several days -- the parents were so impressed they stayed an extra night and risked space available home. It's a gardener trimming grass by hand under a sign that mentions him by name. It's Lani, the concierge, arranging weddings and, in our case, a 15 year renewal of our wedding vows at sundown on the beach. It's people, old Hawaiian hands with an average of eight years at the resort, that operate on the classic, now rare, theory that resorts are run for the convenience of the guests, not the help! "No problem" replaces the usual "no chance" response too common elsewhere these days.

These days, complexity seems king. Simple, classic solutions are rare. Not at Kona Village. Air-conditioning is one example. They don't have it. Given evening trade winds, louvered glass over screens, tall hale roofs and circular fans and the proper siting of hales and you don't need air conditioning. You don't need room service, where everything is at hand. You don't need long empty corridors when the alternative is a stroll over packed sand through a corridor of flowers and palms. You don't need TV when you can talk, neck in a hammock under the palms or simply sit on your lanai and watch the surf break on the point.

Even the coffee pots in the hales reflect this approach. Guests can dump Kona -- what else! -- beans in the pot and set the timer so they have coffee at hand when they want. There is also a pot, and pastries, at a central location early, for those who can't wait for early breakfast. This is in contrast with a Bermuda resort where the staff had a coffee pot, but guests couldn't get coffee until nine in the morning. Guests too lazy to do this, and too hungry to wait for 7:30 breakfast, can find coffee and sweet rolls between the pools.

You hear a lot about the "Aloha" spirit in Hawaii. Kona Village takes this a step farther. Want to billfish? "No problem, we've got a boat." Heading up the volcano early for the day? The lovely ladies at the front desk offer a box breakfast plus the usual box lunch, and at no extra cost. If you do opt for a box lunch, you don't pick it up either, your waiter delivers it to you at breakfast.

This coddled feeling starts when you pull up into the circular driveway in front of the one story resort headquarters. We arrived via rental car from Kona Airport just 5 1/2 miles away -- next time we'll use the resort shuttle as we found everything we need for a super stay on site.

A hostess greets you with a smile, a lei and, while you register, a cool drink. A bellman loads a golf cart, takes you to your hale and parks your car. Awkward tip situations are avoided with room or food service surcharges if that is more convenient. We like this system a lot.

Hales come in six classes and Tahitian, Marquesan, Fijian, New Hebrides, New Caledonian, Samoan and Palau types. All offer water views of the shore, beaches, headlands or freshwater ponds. If you have trouble walking you might want to opt for a hale near the dining rooms, pools and registration area. The resort does offer a map and will confirm a specific unit -- this seems popular with the over 50 percent of visitors who return -- on a one week stay. We inspected at least a dozen hales and found all clean and well-ordered. Since you spend so much time on the beach and in public areas the standard or moderate garden hales cut costs.

We found that, while the Kona Village atmosphere lends itself to relaxation, the typical guest seems more active than at other resorts. Tennis, with free morning clinics and afternoon round robins was popular and without the usual resort surcharge. A full-time tennis pro and three quality courts offered ideal playing conditions. Since the Village is right at the water, and the lava shield toward the volcano heats up in the sun typical of the Kona Coast, trade winds build about ten in the morning to cool players.

Most visitors seem semi-aquatic. White and black sand beaches on Kahuwai Bay offer wonderful diving as fishing isn't encouraged inside the points. In the evening rays and other fish swarm in to eat plankton under the lights. In the morning, many guests swim before breakfast. During the day, an assortment of quality snorkel gear, sailboats, boards and more help offer more excuses to get wet. Glass bottom boat and snorkel trips are offered, and the resort does have its own billfishing boat. Skilled beach boys offer lessons and help when they aren't making hats for the kids. Timid swimmers queue up at the pools, each with its own bar.

Like most Hawaiians, the beach boys and staff love kids, and kids, some third generation visitors, are definitely a part of the resort. However, kids aren't in adults, or parents, hair with baby sitters available from nine to nine and a complete program that, if parents like, can include dinner available. One mother noted, "This is the only resort we know where we can enjoy the kids, but still have our own romantic candlelight dinners." This family stayed an extra day, and risked Hawaiian Air Lines space available so their boy could get an extra day of hitting instructions from the beach boy!

However, Kona Village is definitely a quiet, adult resort without much night life besides fine guitar and voice accompaniment to dinners. Since hales are separate, you don't hear toilets flushing or loud music. We only saw one single here, and she looked rather sad. Couples were usual and the age range ran from newlyweds to several other couples redoing their vows on their anniversaries.

Even for a cynical old writer, "Uncle" made our ceremony special. I'd signed up for the ceremony at the insistence of an editor, and my wife, Annette. The results exceeded expectation. Uncle's soft, carefully chosen words underscored by a light surf on the black sand beach with a trade wind accompaniment, made the sunset hour special. We saw another renewal -- their 25th -- that included grandchildren, and a set of newlyweds who, in response to a comment about the "romantic setting," noted that, "it was a lot cheaper to come over with a couple of friends than invite everyone in town to a wedding and reception at home." And I thought newlyweds were romantic!

When my wife, after our first day, offered to give up cruise vacations for Kona Village, I knew we'd return. After a week lazing in the sun, sampling torchlight reef fishing, heading out for billfish, and arriving home rested and relaxed, we planned our next visit. Then we went on a diet!

Pigging Out In Hawaii

Granted, Kona Village offers "light cuisine" options, but we found the food better than we've had on our last four cruises. Over our week's stay we sampled just about everything on the menu. Portions are ample. You got fed all you want, even too much, but seem to avoid that pate' goose cruise feeling. Meals, like the resort, are five star.

At breakfast, we stuck with fresh papaya with lime and a glass of guava juice and some wonderful local sausage. The menu listed buttermilk pancakes with bananas or macadamia nuts. When asked the first morning, our waitress noted that she liked both, and brought a plate with some of each. This came with the delicious coconut syrup that became a staple with our other favorite, French toast made from Portuguese Sweetbread. This kind of personal service makes a resort special. So do the warblers flying around the dining room at breakfast. Pass the Eggs Benedict.

Lunch was a wonderful open air buffet, moved indoors if it rains, as does happen even on the dry side of the island. One afternoon, after snorkeling and tennis, we managed 14 different kinds of fish in hot, cool, cooked and raw modes. Fish, when purchased that day in the Kona Market, never tasted better! A quick trip through for samples, and a return for "serious eating" fueled us for afternoon swimming and tennis.

Dinners in the Hale Samoa or Hale Moana, the resort's two dining rooms, could be the best in the Islands. The slightly less formal Hale Moana offers eight or ten fish prepared in at least six different ways to total over 50 alternatives. Opakapa, a pink snapper, was our favorite. This was after a crab soup, special shrimp salad and the usual side dishes. Other entrees included quail, beef tenderloin and lamb chops.

We ate three nights at the Hale Samoa. There is a slight surcharge for some dishes over the usual meal credit on the American plan and it's "Kona Village formal" so shirts must have collars.

Seafood mousse, scallops marinated in lime and coconut, and papaya and coconut bisque or duck and Maui onion soup got things started. Our favorite salad was grilled quail or a curried Ahi (fish) salad with an orange-lime and sesame seed dressing. Fish and lobster combinations, and an outstanding abalone and shrimp sauté with fresh pasta, light basil and lobster cream sauce highlighted one dinner.

We sampled a tenderloin of buffalo with mushroom, leek and truffle sauce, a lamb in puff pastry and my favorite, duck breast stuffed with Andouille sausage, figs and pine nuts with an orange and mango coulis.

Two other meal options deserve mention. First, a traditional Hawaiian cowboy steak night -- with super ribs and all the usual assortments -- while we listened to "real," as opposed to tourist, Hawaiian songs, filled a Wednesday evening. The Friday night Kona Village Luau, and, as a rule, I don't care for commercial luaus at all, seemed more than acceptable. Especially when I filled up with enough Lomi salmon and opihi, a limpet you don't find away from the islands, to hold me until we return.

So exactly how good is the Kona Village? It's the finest resort we've reviewed in 20 years full-time travel writing. The only complaints we heard from guests during our stay went, "Dumb travel agent should have saved this for last, I don't want to leave for Maui, Kauai etc." But we worry. With the Kona Airport now International, once the bean counters realize that there are only 125 hales on superb 85 acres, visions of high rises may spring forth from number-fevered brains. Until this happens, or the volcanoes bite, we plan to visit once a year even though the prices look high until you realize they include everything. We aren't alone here. Since our last visit, Conde' Nast readers voted Kona Village "the best tropical resort in the world."

KONA VILLAGE Box 1299 Kaupulehu-Kona, Hawaii 96745